Putting innovators such as Anna Atkins alongside contemporary artists, Foam's new exhibition explores how 19th century experimentation has made a come back, explains curator Kim Knoppers
“To look ahead we first need to look back in time,” write Kim Knoppers and Ann-Christin Bertrand, curators of Back to the Future: The 19th Century in the 21st Century – an exhibition that presents contemporary artists whose experimental approaches to photography echo those of the 19th century pioneers of the medium.
“Like everyone else, I am overwhelmed by images every day,” adds Knoppers. “The more the world is dominated by images, the more the visual culture in general appears homogenised. The traditional camera is being replaced by seeing machines, and traditional photographic prints replaced by fleeting, non-tangible images on our phone screens. All this creates a desire to give the work a character of its own – an aura, if you like, by means of craft. Actual objects, the products of skill, attention, trial and error, gain gravity as a riposte to the transience of the present.
“I noticed that a growing number of artists either consciously or unconsciously used techniques and themes that were used at the dawn of photography. After discussing my thoughts with colleagues, such as Elisa Medde from Foam Magazine, and Ann-Christin Bertrand from C/O Berlin, and with my students at ECAL in Lausanne, we realised the subject is still very much alive,” she adds. “At the heart of the exhibition are contemporary artists who rearrange, reinterpret, adopt and recycle themes, techniques and ideas from nineteenth century photography, always in a contemporary way, using digital techniques, new materials and contemporary motifs.”
From Anna Atkins’ early experiments with cyanotypes to Nicolai Howalt’s Light Break Wavelengths (2015), the exhibition features over 25 artists from the 19th and 21st centuries, and shows the parallels between their work. While using the original building block of photography, light and photosensitive materials, the contemporary artists also adopt modern tools such as computers and 3D printers – creating radically new works of art which also lean in the direction of drawing, sculpture, and painting.
Centred around five thematic chapters (Leaving Traces, Transforming Matter, Sensing Time, Mapping the World, and Catching Light), the show gives a comprehensive insight into the roles photography has played in its relatively brief history, as well as exploring its raw elements. One of these elements is experimentation, says Knoppers, and it’s still a key factor today.
“The nineteenth century was a time in which a great deal was possible, simply because little was fixed and the medium was developing rapidly,” she says. “Obviously the biggest change is that photography developed from the plaything of laymen as astronomers, mathematicians, doctors and chemists into an artistic field. It transformed from a useful tool for (semi-)scientific purposes into a truly free and artistic field in itself.”
In today’s digital era, it’s easier than ever to take photographs, and to share them with people around the world. But, as Knoppers points out, the irony is that the more images we produce, the less we understand of their essence. With this exhibition, she hopes to show what photography once was, what it is now, and what it can be in the future.
Back to the Future: The 19th Century in the 21st Century runs from 19 January-28 March at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, featuring work by Anna Atkins, Sylvia Ballhause, Karl Blossfeldt, Matthew Brandt, Alfred Brothers, Henry Brothers, S.W. Burham, William England, Sam Falls, Spiros Hadjidjanos, Thomas Hauser, Nicolai Howalt, Adam Jeppesen, Thomas Mailaender, James Nasmyth, Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs, Johan Österholm, Jaya Pelupessy & Felix van Dam, Lewis M. Rutherford, Warren de la Rue, Nils Strindberg, Simon van Til, and several anonymous artists. https://www.foam.org/museum/programme/public-opening